Interview with Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares
by Staff writer
Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares. Doesn’t that name just make you want to know everything about her? It positively exudes diversity.
Huda is a Beirut-born, American-educated individual who currently lives in Amsterdam. She is a typographer, writer, researcher and graphic designer, with degrees from both
Yale University School of Art and Rhode Island School of Design. She is also the founder and director of Khatt Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes design development and research through projects that have proven to be truly innovative. The foundation strives to advance design in the Arab World and the Middle East and strives to build cross-cultural creative networks by organizing highly successful cultural events of relevance, such as the 1st Kitabat Conference on Arabic Typography (April 2006 in Dubai), the Typographic Matchmaking Project, the Khatt Kufi & Kaffiya Symposium on Arabic Visual Culture and the El Hema Exhibition project (Amsterdam 2007). The foundation also hosts a variety of workshops, exhibitions, and exchange programs between Europe and the Middle East, as well as showcases a wide array of published books and catalogs about Middle Eastern design and visual culture. Finally, the foundation established a highly valued online resource: the Khatt Online Community. The choice of the name ‘Khatt’ for the foundation goes deeper than just being a word.
What is the reason behind the name?
The word “khatt” in Arabic is rich with associations that define the overarching aims of the Khatt Foundation. Khatt does not only mean “writing, script, lettering, calligraphy and typographic style”, but also means “line”, as in a trace on a page, a line of thinking, a direction, a direct line towards a defined goal, a straight path and so much more.
What was the motivation behind Khatt Foundation?
The simple motivation was to create a platform for contemporary Arabic design in the widest sense and to find a concrete way to link the various applied arts. The choice of the Arabic script and typography was very obvious.
As a graphic designer, what made you venture into creating Khatt? How did your background play into the foundation?
As a designer in the Arab World, I had personally struggled to find information that would help me to work in a culturally relevant manner without copying the past and playing with pastiche. I found very little accessible published information about contemporary Middle Eastern design and recent history. Moreover, the few published works tended to be, in general, either not very well written or not very well designed and printed. Finally, there were no online resources to be found. There was lots of work to be done and I was compelled to take on the challenge. I had started working on research about Arabic typography and teaching the subject at the American University in Dubai, so the Khatt Foundation was the final link between my academic and professional work and personal interest as an Arab designer.
What are the goals of the foundation?
Our mission is to provide a platform for cultural dialog and to promote better understanding between Western nations and the Arab World. Also, we aim to support the development of cultural projects that promote the exchange of ideas, educate, and allow for cross-cultural collaboration in the broadest sense. In addition, we wanted to establish a center for information about contemporary design in the Arab World. In other words, to provide a resource for all interested across this region as well as internationally. We also wanted to create opportunities and networks for young Arab designers across national borders and political divides and bring cultural projects to a wider public, as well as connect them to the design industries and help in the development of the visual aspects of communication, specifically Arabic typographic design in the larger context of applied arts and visual communication.
As a foundation, Khatt has successfully run projects in both the Arab and the Western Worlds. Who are these projects aimed at and what are the goals and advantages that have come from them?
Our projects start from a need we identify and we aim our projects to the professional designers and students of design in the Arab World. Naturally, the projects eventually spread to consumers and a wider audience. The goals are always to improve design and typography and push the boundaries of what is expected, thereby creating products that others can use in creating their own work and products in return. So far the projects that led to concrete products, like the ‘Typographic Matchmaking v1.0’ fonts that were published in 2007 and distributed for a one-user license with the book, have been widely used. Our project and fonts have initiated the trend of bilingual consumer font families, so now our ideas and approach is being copied by mainstream font foundries and famous designers. Also, these fonts are being used for educational purposes, in art publications, and in children’s books, where money and budgets are small but the interest in quality is high. When these fonts are used for large-scale commercial purposes, the designers of the fonts have been contacted and commissioned to sometimes even be involved in further work. The benefits for the culture are subtle but there is definitely a growing interest and understanding for contemporary design and typography.
What are some of the foundation’s present and recent activities?
One example is the creation of an Arab/Iranian design community with a presence in the international design scene. We’ve also organized workshops and seminars on Arabic typography and design in the Arab World, as well as conferences, exhibitions and exchange programs in collaboration with other European and Arab institutions.
We’ve set up design research projects that help revive and renovate design and crafts in the Arab World in partnership with local industries and designers. Additionally, the foundation has facilitated and assisted with research projects on typography and design and provided information through a network of experts about type technology and visual communication in the Arab World. Finally, we’ve played a strong part in publishing books, catalogs and articles about design and visual communication in the Arab World.
Projects like ‘Project Mulsaq’ and the ‘Typographic Matchmaking Projects’ have been considered huge successes. What projects do you have in store for the future and what are some of the possible new areas that you would like to explore?
I am working on a new version of Typographic Matchmaking for urban and architectural design. We hope to influence the look of public space and its use by civilians in Arab and European cities. There are five teams of designers, not only typographic and graphic designers, but also notable urban designers, product designers and architects involved this time. It is an ambitious project that we hope will result in a traveling exhibition and public interventions in cities throughout the region and in Europe. We hope to be ready by September 2010. New avenues we would like to push for as a cultural design foundation, are better and closer relations between crafts and contemporary design in the region. We also would like to work on experimental projects with Arab product designers and craftsmen. We will be taking part in an exhibition at Haus Der Kunst in Munich in September 2010 where we will start exhibiting specially developed work in this direction by inviting a small group of Arab designers that are also members of the Khatt network. Another avenue is to develop projects focused on Arabic typography and new media.
With three books to your name: Arabic Typography: a comprehensive sourcebook, Experimental Arabic Type, and Typographic Matchmaking; do you have any plans for a new installment?
I am currently working on a book about Arabic typographic layouts and book design. I am also at a very early stage of investigating a history of costume design in the Arab world. That last idea will take many years and may turn into a series of monographs and topics. I think there is a very significant relationship between identity, dress and visual communication; how we organize patterns and colors has a very strong relation to landscape, social relations and written communication.
The Khatt online network has just celebrated its two-year mark this summer. What does this online network provide?
The Khatt Network provides a window to the world of contemporary design in the Middle East and Arab World. It provides information about this scene and its members and offers the opportunity for designers from this widely spread geographic area to meet and collaborate on projects and exchange ideas, overriding physical barriers and obstacles. It also provides, free of charge, the possibility for designers to present their work and post their ideas, biographies, events, favorite books and so on.
Calligraphy has always been looked at as the purest form of “ art” within the Arab World. Why is calligraphy and, for that matter, typography, very important in our culture?
The Arab and Islamic heritage has always cherished the ‘word’ in its spoken, sung and written form. We have elevated calligraphy to a very high and refined art form. Calligraphy is visual celebration of word giving it beauty, visual rhythm. It is the dancing traces that connect the hand to the traces it makes on a page while writing. It imbues the word with meaning and emotions. I believe that we now owe it to ourselves in the Arab world to also elevate typography to that level, not only by paying more attention to making good typographic work and new typefaces, but also by making the general public as aware of its importance as they are of Arabic calligraphy’s. This I believe is our cultural identity in the new technology-driven ‘modern world’.
Do you think that enough inspiration can be derived from an Arabic heritage and background; that graphic designers will be able to build from that on its own without having to address what the Western World is up to?
There is definitely enough inspiration in our Arab/Islamic heritage. Our heritage has always been inclusive, incorporating and getting inspired by other civilizations’ visual cultures and arts. I do not see being inspired from the heritage as necessarily shutting out the West, or even Far East. On the contrary, we need to be aware of the essence and principles of our Arab design culture, not the superficial formal aspects.
Globalization sometimes brings a loss of culture. Why do you think it is important for the new generation of Arabs to cling on to their typography? Why is it important for them to develop it further within the context of a modern world?
It is important not to cling but to cherish the most emblematic image of our cultural identity in the face of commercially driven globalization. We need to be proud, without arrogance or sense of superiority, just be proud that we have something to develop further and make others respect and appreciate. We also need to develop it further in order to prove to ourselves first, and others second, that we can be true to our visual heritage and culture by keeping it alive rather than mummifying it into old museum relics.
What advice would you give up and coming graphic designers from the Arab World?
Be proud of what you have, learn about the past and look towards finding your individual voice for your present and future work. Work hard and make what you cannot find and that you feel you need to have.
Since its launch in 2004, Khatt Foundation has continuously exhibited one success after another. It has established itself as a platform for launching innovative design projects that address the immediate needs of design in the region. Partnering with established institutions, it has turned the results of these projects into viable products available on the market. The Foundation’s online network is an excellent place to get inspiration from and to meet designers from all around